* There are about 100,000 acres of school grounds for the 7.5 million children in the UK who use them every day * Infants spend about 24 per cent of their school life in the grounds; juniors 21 per cent * Schools that have transformed their grounds say bullying has fallen by 64 per cent and vandalism by 28 per cent * 'Friendship benches' - where lonely children can go to get help from a playground buddy - are becoming common * The risk of injury in playgrounds is modest compared to the risks from other activities * Hurried solutions based on a quick-fix mentality are the opposite of what experts recommend
When children at an east London primary were asked to name the most important feature of their playground, they replied "the first-aid hut".
Questioned as to how to improve the dismal 75-metre strip of asphalt, their answer was "more CCTV cameras". Clearly, playtime had become a negative experience for the 500 pupils at Daubeney primary in Hackney. A quarter of their school day was spent in a noisy, chaotic, stressful and sometimes violent environment. Learning did not come easy afterwards.
Unfortunately, their experience is probably the norm for the 7.5 million UK children who venture into a playground every day. For some, it is the only outdoor space they ever use. But what happens in it? Girls ignore football-playing boys. Older pupils snub younger ones. Instead of nurturing plants, dreaming up new games, or just chatting, uninspired youngsters nurture grudges, dream of escape, or are just lonely. Bullying and vandalism can flourish in these barren environments. About 70 per cent of the estimated 100,000 acres of school grounds - one of the largest publicly owned estates in the UK - is being wasted. Why?
Architects and building contractors are not Ken Davies's favourite people.
The chief executive of the charity Learning through Landscapes (LTL) has seen too many imaginative outdoor schemes ditched when the money for building or refurbishing a school runs out. "It's a tempting target, always on the fag-end of the budget," he says. "We are up against a deeply ingrained system of managing capital that puts children last, behind contractors' profits and architects' fees. If these professionals can't protect what I call the children's outdoor budget, maybe they should give it to the headteachers."
Now, with billions being poured into a national school building programme, there is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform grounds on a grand scale. But Mr Davies is not convinced this will happen, despite the high profile of issues such as children's fitness. He spent months last year lobbying ministers to earmark a portion of the budget for grounds. As ammunition he had the results of an LTL survey of 700 schools in England.
Those that had transformed their grounds reported a 64 per cent reduction in bullying and a 28 per cent decrease in vandalism. Two-thirds of heads also said children's attitudes to learning had improved and that they played better together.
There were "lots of good words" from ministers who have backed LTL's Creative Schools Challenge (see resources). The Government has also included "brilliant" outdoor ideas in its "exemplar" programme to help local authorities with new school design. But schools are legally obliged only to have outdoor space. What they do with it is entirely optional.
Grounds, says Mr Davies, still fall in the "exceptional cost" category.
"While they are still expendable, we will find that we have new schools set in asphalt and green deserts. If we miss the boat this time, it will be another 30 years before we get another go. Unless, of course, the headteacher, the PTA, charities and local community sort out the mess."
Creatives at play
Which is what has happened at Daubeney primary. "It's amazing what a difference five straight white lines can make," says headteacher Ronnie Smith. She is referring to just one section of her new playground, transformed courtesy of a pound;100,000 project by the Hackney Wick Public Art Programme. Once the first-aid hut dominated; now huge black and white stripes and dots break up the long space. Yellow poles, portable boulders and moving platforms invite children to play. A hill entices them to climb up and survey their new land. Huge grass-filled planters can accommodate eight children. "Talking while sitting on grass is not something children in Hackney often do," says Ms Smith.
The playground has had a calming effect since it was finished last September, says Mrs Smith. "The number of fights and acts of aggression has greatly reduced. The children are now playing, rather than arguing."
Hattie Coppard, the artist who designed the playground with Lynn Kinnear, a landscape architect, agrees. "It is mind-blowing what a different place it is," she says. Before the project started three years ago, the playground was a "running sore". Visually it was horrible - the standard strip of football-dominated asphalt. And psychologically it was having a terrible effect on the pupils. "It was a negative space," says Ms Coppard.
In the classroom, Daubeney uses art to break down barriers between pupils from different backgrounds. The same ethos was applied outside. Teachers, lunchtime supervisors, parents and pupils were involved in the redesign, starting with a week of experiments with ideas and materials. Every day, objects such as highway cones and wooden pallets appeared. Children and adults played with them, rearranging the territory to suit their needs.
Ms Coppard wanted to encourage creativity. "I was keen not to have anything descriptive. I gave them material to make houses, boats and planes. I did not want to give them houses, boats or planes."
The same approach was taken by the London's Science Museum in work for Bedfordshire local authority as part of the Government's pound;13 million Classrooms of the Future project. There, the materials were electronic: a musical slide, a line of 50 lights, squares that made noises when stepped on. But the aim was the same: to spark creative, open play. "The schools were barren environments," says Alice Graham of the museum. "Surrounded by high-security fences, they felt more like prisons or borstals. Everything had been removed to deter vandals, but vandalism flourished in such a hard environment."
Daubeney's new playground allows children to be private, but not hidden.
And it inspires play not aggression. Ms Coppard wanted to "design out" fear. "How can you be creative if you are fearful?"
Fear in the playground has been worrying Melanie Scott, project co-ordinator of a Newcastle upon Tyne scheme, Children Against Bullying in Schools, for the past year. Research shows that most bullying takes place there, but changing the environment can dramatically improve the atmosphere, as the LTL survey reveals.
Changing playtime culture does not have to be expensive. Simple "friendship benches", where lonely children can get help from a playground "buddy", are being installed across Britain. They are appearing in Newcastle, where Ms Scott has trained 300 children to act as playtime "buddies" or "games masters". The volunteers are not all "prefect" material, but include less biddable youngsters. They are taught basic peer support skills: how to listen, how to spot unhappy children, what to do if there is a fight. The aim is not to challenge bullies directly, but to create a culture where they do not flourish.
Before the training, Ms Scott asked children what they actually did in their playtimes. "It was sad," she says. "Most said they just walked around." Many of the boys played football, but this can take over a playground, often excludes girls, and can be a source of "covert" bullying.
One head working with Ms Scott simply cordoned off a section for football and sent the "games masters" to work in the other zone. These children have been taught how to play traditional, but forgotten, games such as "What's the time, Mr Wolf?" and make sure everyone feels able to join in. "The children love them," says Ms Scott.
Since it was set up in 1990, LTL has worked with between 8,000 and 10,000 schools, about a third of the total in England and Wales. But Mr Davies admits that doesn't mean one school in three now has a great outdoor space.
There are many failed projects, he says, but these have helped the charity learn what works. One approach that doesn't work is the schools equivalent of the television programme Ground Force. "We get cheesed off with so many requests for instant makeovers," he says. "This media-driven, quick-fix mentality is the opposite of what we are suggesting." Rather than have a hurried solution imposed by outsiders, the whole school community - pupils, staff, parents - should be involved. The children are the key. After all, they spend a lot of their time in the school's grounds: 24 per cent of an infant's day, 21 per cent of a junior's. The adults who supervise them are vital too. Youngsters pick up on their status and skills, and any redesign must consider how far those staff would benefit from training.
An "evolutionary" attitude is best. Like a garden, a school's grounds are never really finished. They need to grow and develop to suit pupils' changing needs. Schools should focus on what the pupils want to do, rather than what they want to have, or demands can become unreasonable. While money is important, a lot can be done with very little, says Mr Davies.
"The best school grounds offer the kids so much in terms of social spaces, learning opportunities, sport and recreation. If you were starting with absolutely awful grounds, you could use pound;100,000 - and some projects have raised that. But over time, with full engagement and some inputs from teachers and the community, you can do an enormous amount with pound;5,000 to pound;10,000. You won't replace the asphalt, and you won't rebuild all the retaining walls, but even in a small urban school you can make a huge impact by thinking about areas such as playtime management, girls not participating, bullying, segregation and racial issues."
Children, like adults, get disheartened if they think their ideas are being ignored or if there is too much talking and not enough action. They lose interest if they feel that new facilities are in the wrong place, are poorly valued by teachers or are likely to be vandalised. Such are the interim findings of a study by the National Foundation for Educational Research. Six secondary schools have been given pound;50,000 each to develop a new approach to improving their grounds. Their experiences have helped the NfER identify basic principles, such as launching projects at several levels within a school, making sure projects don't take too long to realise, and "managing" negotiations between students and a landscape architect.
If all goes well, the process can boost students' self-confidence and skills. The school also learns how to usher in change. And, of course, there are some fantastic new grounds to enjoy.
Take your pick
While the process of redesigning grounds should have certain common elements, such as student involvement, the results can be varied. Schools have constructed outdoor "classrooms" around themes of art, nature, science, technology and gardening. Sydney Russell secondary school in the London borough of Barking, for example, used the five-year development of its grounds to support citizenship, geography, art, photography and maths - the latter by constructing a maths maze.
The eco-school movement has boosted interest in sustainable development.
From wind turbines to wildlife areas to compost heaps, the green agenda has plenty to challenge children. Similarly, design and technology students can be inspired by the thought of building playgrounds, bridges and technology gardens. The need to reconnect youngsters with nature has sparked the Government's Growing Schools initiative, while the Prince of Wales's company, Duchy Originals, is funding the Organic Gardens for Schools network.
Or the emphasis can simply be on the subtle process of learning to make friends and be happy.
"It's amazing how much teenagers want to play," says Ms Coppard. "And a lot of their play has to do with performance." Boys and girls need to be able to interact, to show off to each other - and to be able to take refuge in their own gender groups. (Once in those groups, she has noticed, the boys sit in lines while girls sit in groups or "gaggles".) The teenagers who go to South Camden community school in the London borough of Camden are about to get a "playground" that should help them express themselves. The traditional - and empty - "quadrangle" of paths and out-of-bounds raised grass areas is being dug up. It was "like an old people's home", says one student.
Last summer, Ms Coppard filled the quad with picnic mats, mirrors, platforms and cafe tables and chairs. It become packed and the platforms were particularly popular. They were used for dancing and singing, with older boys showing off their breakdancing moves. Building on that experiment, the new space will have a variety of levels to act as stages.
It will be "modern, colourful, comfy; somewhere you can socialise and talk; somewhere relaxable and peaceful", says one Year 8 pupil.
Students at Sandy upper school, Bedfordshire, would understand. They told Alice Graham of the Science Museum that they needed somewhere to "hang out" outside. They had nothing, not even seats. Now they have an outdoor common room, with weather-proofed MP3 juke box.
Old chestnuts The "schools-ban-conkers" story is an old chestnut, loved by the tabloid press as proof that headteachers have become excessively protective of children.
In 2002, the Children's Society and Children's Play Council called for an audit of "boring" school and council playgrounds. Its survey of 500 children uncovered a "culture of caution" that ruled out tag, handstands or even tangling with yo-yos.
Yet such measures can be more dangerous than the activities they are preventing. Children need to stretch themselves physically and mentally.
The play safety forum, part of the National Children's Bureau, says: "Play provision is first and foremost for children, and if it is not exciting and attractive to them, it will fail, no matter how 'safe' it is."
Some heads are clearly overreacting to the risk of litigation. The first major report into playground safety for a decade, published by the Health and Safety Executive in 2002, concluded that the risk of injury in UK playgrounds was modest. And even when a child is hurt and the case comes to court, judges tend to take a common-sense approach. As Chris Lowe, The TES's schools legal adviser, puts it: "Health and safety laws do not require schools to ban everything remotely dangerous." They are expected to consider risks that are "reasonably foreseeable" and take "reasonably practicable" steps to avoid or to minimise them.
Tim Gill, director of the Children's Play Council, sees signs that the pendulum is swinging back. "You can't make a playground absolutely safe, and we are seeing designers of some of the new playgrounds trying to reintroduce exciting and challenging play opportunities."
Additional research: Sarah Jenkins
Next week: Governors
* Learning through Landscapes (www.ltl.org.uk) is the UK's major outdoor education charity, with 3,000 members. Advice and resources available on the website, as well as details of many initiatives including: the Creative Schools Challenge and the Learning Together project with the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations.
* Growing Schools (www.teachernet.gov.uk) is a major government programme to harness the full potential of the "outdoor classroom" as a teaching and learning resource. Its website will be available in March with access to resource materials, funding opportunities and case studies, as well as useful links.
* Snug and Outdoor (www.snugandoutdoor.co.uk). Read about the process that created the "experimental" playground at Daubeney primary, plus details of other work on school grounds by artist Hattie Coppard.
* Teachernet, the Government website for teachers (www.teachernet.gov.uk), contains basic guidance on developing playground policies, training lunchtime supervisors and improving the outdoor environment.
* Children's Play Council is an alliance of national and regional organisations and local authorities (www.ncb.org.uk, and www.playday.org.uk).
* The Worldwide Fund for Nature (www.wwf.org.uk, and www.wwflearning.co.uk) is a source of ideas for schools wanting to "green" their grounds and encourage sustainable development.
* Playground Pals (www.pioneer.cwc.net playgroundpals.htm) is an extensive website that aims to bring together the best online resources dealing with playground games, playground management and media coverage of playground issues in general.
* The Duchy Originals HDRA Organic Gardens for Schools network (www.hdra.org.uk schools_organic_networkindex.htm) is open to all schools, primary and secondary, urban and rural. The aim is to encourage schools to sow, grow and nurture plants using only organic methods. Project offers many new teaching opportunities and innovative ways of applying the curriculum.
* Southgate Publishers is a Devon-based supplier of many books and resources about the outdoor classroom. Tel: 01363 776888.
* Fly the green flag by becoming an eco-school, a member of an international programme for environmental education for sustainability (www.eco-schools.org.uk).
* Hampshire Gardens Trust. Case-studies of work at Hampshire schools including the creation of a willow dome and a "calming courtyard" (www.hants.gov.ukschoolgardens).
For full list of resources, see www.tes.co.uk